David Lammy is on jubilant form, more so on this grey February morning in his sparse Westminster office than ever before. To be fair, previous to this, the only times I’ve encountered him have been when he was giving talks in his constituency. He was in his ‘social justice warrior’ era back then. In recent months the Labour MP for Tottenham and shadow foreign secretary has been debuting a new persona: diplomatic Lammy.
After years in the political wilderness, Labour is finally starting to become a player again — although not really for anything the party itself did. “The truth is the tempo has gone up considerably since September…since the whole Truss economics debacle.”
In the weeks before we meet, Lammy is everywhere — his speech at Chatham House in January set out Labour’s stall on foreign policy. And people have paid attention because many expect him to be foreign secretary by 2024. “It’s just nice to be of interest again, after 13 years in opposition,” he says. Given a mandate, Labour would ‘reconnect’ Britain to the rest of the world, take on China, get Brexit done (or undone-ish, depending on how hard you like your Brexit).
“We should not underestimate the lack of trust — and even bitterness in places — that has come to represent our relationship with our closest allies,” says Lammy. He was a staunch and vociferous Remainer, so it’s not surprising that he’s positioning himself as the man to smooth over relations with our European neighbours. And indeed on an interpersonal level he seems suitably affable — smart but quick to laugh. Did he win any of the Brexit hardliners over to his way of thinking at the secret cross-party summit last month? He laughs: “That was a bit overblown.” So no coup was planned? “It was just a set of seminars, it wasn’t us rolling up our sleeves to negotiate a treaty,” he says. “Anyway, what we discussed has to remain private. Even though it might be juicy, I’m not going to start quoting Michael Gove.”
On the specifics of how he would move forward with Brexit without rejoining the customs union or the single market (both of which have been ruled out by Labour), he explains that under his stewardship,there’d be more “structured dialogue” (aka meetings) with the EU. “At the moment, there is no forum with which we routinely meet the European Union, to discuss the challenges that we face together. I meet with Standard journalists more often than our current Prime Minister sits down with European colleagues in a structured dialogue. So that’s got to change.” He’d also aim for “more mobility for students”, easier access for touring artists and “we think we could have a security pact.”
“Once we’ve normalised our relationships with Europe, building on that, security is an area where we can really co-operate together. And the war in Ukraine demonstrates that there’s much that we can do — sanctions policy, for example. Then of course, we’ve got the review of our trade agreement with the European Union in 2025 and we need to work together to ease some of the friction we are seeing between us and the EU. But that’s a proper negotiation built on friendship, I hope, and trust.” He claims that this fraternal approach is being well received in Brussels. “I think one diplomat described it as honey on toast, it’s a completely different relationship than the rancour and bitterness that’s existed over the last few years.”
The way that China might use CCTV for surveillance — we have to be absolutely clear that that would be unacceptable and goes against our security interests
Of course, ‘rebuilding’ and ‘smoothing over’ doesn’t seem to be a great departure from Rishi Sunak’s approach — and Lammy is unwilling to be drawn on the specifics of renegotiations or, outside of Brexit, defence spending (“when we were in power, I think we left office with defence spending at 2.5 per cent of GDP. So I do think that our defence spending is an important political issue, and will remain so”), so it’s hard to say if our foreign engagements will truly feel different under Labour. Of China, he says that “we have to ‘de-risk’ our relationship at this time,” which means “a full audit”, including a look at Chinese tech in our infrastructure, “i.e. the way that they might use CCTV for surveillance — we have to be absolutely clear that that would be unacceptable and goes against our security interests.” As well as challenging the country on its human rights record, “and Hong Kong”.
“But [the relationship] is in the hands of President Xi. Obviously, the aggression that we’ve seen in the Taiwan Straits, and some of the challenges in the Pacific, do not bode well.” Could he envisage a world in which there was British intervention in Taiwan? “I hope that it does not come to that. I think the sort of hardship that we see as a consequence in Ukraine would be magnified 100 times over if there were to be conflict over Taiwan.” At the recent Munich Security Conference, he explains, “there was a recognition that in the years ahead, the US, while still hugely committed to Europe, may well be stretched, because there has to be…emphasis from them in the Pacific. We are applying to be part of the trade alliance in the Pacific region. And we’ve just signed a new defence deal with Japan. So we will be engaged in the Pacific area [too] but obviously none of us want war.”
He’s selling Labour as a party that will champion human rights — a potentially awkward proposition, given the shadow of the Iraq war under Tony Blair’s tenure. Does he worry about seeming like a hypocrite? “I think the Labour Party is a progressive party…” begins his answer before he covers Labour’s fine human rights history from the early 20th century onwards. “I’m afraid “We should not underestimate the lack of trust — and even bitterness in places — that has come to represent our relationship with our closest allies,” says Lammy. … So of course those traditions continue.” We get cut off before I can ask what he means by “those traditions” but presumably it’s not the tradition of invading other countries.
Lammy is a very busy man at the moment, not just with his front bench and constituency work but — if recent headlines are to be believed — also his second jobs. Indeed, last month Starmer — who’d previously said that second jobs for MPs should be banned — was forced to defend Lammy, after the combined income from his LBC radio show, and other media engagements made him one of only two Labour MPs in the top 20 league table of parliamentary earners. He’s netted around £200,000 from second jobs, but says he’s open to discussion about whether this kind of work should continue. “I think we need to have a debate. And it may be that Parliament bans all outside interests and outside jobs. And if that’s the determination of Parliament, then, you know, that is where we will be.”
He says his relationship with Starmer is pretty good. “We go to the football and that can be painful when you’re a Spurs supporter,” he laughs. “We share a love of these two North London teams, and have children broadly the same age, as well as mutual friends.” He calls deputy leader Angela Rayner “a formidable human being and a huge asset to our party.”
There was a point when he seemed a shoo-in for the London Mayorship but he assures me that his focus is now on becoming foreign secretary. “I can be really categorical, I’m not going to be running for Mayor in 2024. Sadiq [Khan] is a very dear friend and we sat in this office a few months ago, and he told me that he wants to run for a third term, so I will do all I can to support him.” Does he see himself as Prime Minister one day? “Me?” He laughs. “Erm, well, I mean, no, I co-chaired Keir Starmer’s campaign to lead our party. I took the view very early on that he had the necessary skills, experience and ingredients to be a very, very impressive Prime Minister.” In the longer term, though, the role of foreign secretary seems to be a good stepping stone to the top job, right? He talks, in a roundabout way, about impressive Labour foreign secretaries from history. It feels to me like he might quite like the No 10 spot one day — though, as he rightly points out, Labour aren’t even in power, “I’m looking forward, really, to that moment happening.”
And who wouldn’t be after 13 years in the wilderness?